Axios China

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November 22, 2023

Welcome back to Axios China. Today we're looking at the "most dramatic" week ever in Taiwan politics, Indian and Chinese students at U.S. universities, mosque demolitions, and lots more.

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Today's newsletter is 1,372 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: A roller coaster week in Taiwan politics

Illustration of an exclamation point stylized with the sun from the Taiwanese flag as the dot.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A roller coaster week in Taiwanese politics saw the presidential race end up right where it started: with four candidates and a clear front-runner. The country's two main opposition parties joined forces only for their new coalition to quickly fall apart.

Why it matters: The top issue on the ballot is Taiwan-China relations. The outcome of the election could shape not just Taiwan's future but also regional security as Beijing aggressively presses its claims over the self-governing island.

Catch up quick: The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate William Lai is polling far ahead of the other three candidates who will likely split the voter base of Taiwan's main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party and virtually guarantee a DPP win on Jan. 13.

  • "If the election were tomorrow, William Lai would win," Lev Nachman, an assistant professor at National Chengchi University whose expertise includes polling in Taiwan, told Axios.
  • A Lai win would further solidify the U.S.-Taiwan relationship but enrage the Chinese government, which views Taiwan as its sovereign territory.
  • Beijing would likely "use heightened military exercises, diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions as a way to exert pressure on a potential Lai presidency to set the terms of future cross-Strait interaction," Wen-Ti Sung, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, said.

The big picture: Two parties, the KMT and the DPP, dominate Taiwanese politics, and presidential races are usually two-way races between candidates from those parties.

  • This year, those candidates are Lai, who serves as vice president under current president Tsai Ing-wen, and the KMT candidate Hou You-yi, who is on leave as New Taipei City mayor.
  • But two additional candidates have thrown their hat in the ring this year: Ko Wen-je, former Taipei mayor and chairman of the upstart Taiwan People's Party (TPP), and Foxconn founder Terry Gou.

What's happening: Late last week, the KMT's Hou and the TPP's Ko announced they had formed a coalition and would be running on a joint ticket — a matchup that could turn what would likely have been an easy win for Lai into one of Taiwan's most competitive elections in history.

  • That's because the three non-DPP candidates are pulling mostly from the same voter base, greatly weakening the challenge to the ruling party.
  • The most important issue for voters in Taiwan's presidential races is cross-Strait relations. Hou, Ko and Gou are all friendlier toward China than the DPP.
  • China's Taiwan Affairs Office warned against what it called an "independence double act" after Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan's former representative to the U.S. who has advocated forcefully for Taiwan on the international stage, was named Lai's running mate last week.

But the coalition collapsed almost immediately, ending any possibility of a KMT-TPP joint ticket.

  • It was perhaps the "most dramatic up and down" of any Taiwanese presidential race, Nachman said.
  • Such a coalition was fundamentally flawed because Ko had founded his party explicitly as a rejection of the two-party system and had run as an outsider, an image with broad appeal among Taiwanese who similarly feel disillusioned with the two major parties.

What to watch: It's still possible the two outsider candidates might join forces, though neither have publicly stated an interest in doing so.

  • Ko and Gou have a lot in common, said Sung, and their resources are complementary. In a potential joint ticket, "Terry Guo would provide the finance, while Ko Wen-je has much more of a party machinery ready to go," Sung added.
  • "If they were to form an alliance, that would seem to make sense."

2. Poll: Most Taiwanese believe the threat from China is growing

Binoculars with China flag in lenses

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Most Taiwanese view China as a growing threat, and very few trust Beijing, according to a new survey by Academia Sinica, Taiwan's top research institution.

Why it matters: Beijing's goal of persuading Taiwan to peacefully unify with the mainland appears increasingly improbable.

By the numbers: The survey found 83% of respondents believe the threat from China has increased in recent years.

  • Just 9% of respondents stated China was a trustworthy country.
  • Continuing a decades-long trend away from identifying as "Chinese," 63% of respondents said they considered themselves Taiwanese, and just 2% thought of themselves as Chinese. 32% identified as both Taiwanese and Chinese.
  • By comparison, in 1992 just 18% said they identified as Taiwanese, while 26% said they identified as Chinese.

The survey also found distrust toward the U.S. was more common than trust.

  • 34% said they viewed the U.S. as trustworthy, while 55% said they viewed the U.S. as untrustworthy.

Survey methodology

3. Catch up quick

1. China said the world "must act urgently" to end the war in Gaza, as leaders from several Middle Eastern nations and the Palestinian National Authority meet in Beijing, CNN reports.

  • "Israel should stop its collective punishment on the people of Gaza, and open up a humanitarian corridor as soon as possible to prevent a humanitarian crisis of a larger scale from taking place," said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

2. A new battery made by Swedish company Northvolt is free from rare earth elements and could help cut dependence on China for batteries, The Guardian reports.

  • "Using sodium-ion technology is not new but we think this is the first product ever completely free from critical raw materials. It is a fundamental breakthrough," said Northvolt executive Patrik Andreasson.

3. Australian divers operating in support of a UN mission off the coast of Japan were injured by sonar pulses from a Chinese warship, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports.

  • The incident occurred on the heels of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's visit to Beijing, which had seemed to bring a softer tone to the tense bilateral relationship.
  • Beijing has denied the incident occurred.

4. The main U.S. federal government pension fund, the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, said it would exclude stocks listed in China and Hong Kong, citing growing national security risks, the Financial Times reports.

4. Indian students flock to U.S. colleges as Chinese enrollment falls

Illustration of a location pin wearing a mortar board

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

International students came to the U.S. in record numbers last year, including a 35% increase in those coming from India, Axios' Sareen Habeshian writes.

Why it matters: Booming demand from India for American education is offsetting a decline in the number of students from China, which fell for a third straight year.

  • The number of international students in the U.S. from India reached an all-time high of 268,923 last year, marking an increase of 35% year-over-year.
  • There were 289,526 Chinese students, still the highest number of any country of origin, though that number has decreased each year since the pandemic.

The big picture: There were more than 1 million international students studying in the U.S. during the 2022-2023 academic year, marking a 12% increase over the previous year, according to an Open Doors report released this week.

  • While the total number rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels, graduate student enrollments reached an all-time high.

Between the lines: The spike in the number of international students also comes as the U.S. expands its long-standing scientific collaborations with India — while both countries try to counter China's ever-growing influence.

  • "Strengthening educational ties between the United States and India is a priority for the U.S. Government," a Department of State spokesperson told Axios.

Go deeper: Chinese students cooling on U.S. higher education

5. What I'm reading

"Mosque consolidation:" Mosques shuttered, razed, altered in Muslim areas (Human Rights Watch)

  • "The Chinese government is significantly reducing the number of mosques in Ningxia and Gansu provinces under its 'mosque consolidation' policy, in violation of the right to freedom of religion."
  • "Chinese authorities have decommissioned, closed down, demolished, and converted mosques for secular use as part of the government's efforts to restrict the practice of Islam. The authorities have removed Islamic architectural features, such as domes and minarets, from many other mosques."

6. China carbon emissions may peak before 2030

China's carbon emissions are on track to peak before 2030, a poll of 89 experts has found, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: China is the world's biggest carbon emitter and has pledged to achieve peak emissions by 2030.

Details: More than 70% of experts polled by the Helsinki-based think tank Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said that China would be able to meet that target.

  • China's widespread adoption of solar power and its huge electric vehicle industry are helping its green energy transition.

Yes, but: "Experts remain concerned about how high the peak emissions would reach compared to previous levels," the think tank stated.

A big thank you to Alison Snyder for edits, Sheryl Miller for copy edits, and the Axios visuals team.